It’s Only a Movie is the seventh studio album by the British progressive rock band Family, released in 1973, and their last original studio album before they disbanded that year. (by wikipedia)
Rocky Marciano, Dick Van Dyke, and Cary Grant had all known when to quit; so, it proved, did Family. By the middle of 1973, Roger Chapman and Charlie Whitney felt it was time to dissolve their group, largely for three reasons. First, there was the lineup; there had been five personnel changes up to that point, meaning that there had been as many replacements as there had been original members. Chapman and Whitney feared that, with so many member turnovers, Family might soon turn into a parody of themselves; indeed, they were becoming notorious for being unable to hold onto a bass player for more than two albums. Secondly, their songwriting was beginning to get formulaic, and they felt that their most innovative ideas had been exhausted. (Chapman: “The choruses came more and more. As you write [songs] you can’t help but standardize yourself.”) Thirdly, they realized that achieving mainstream success in America was a pipedream; though they stirred some interest in the U.S. with Bandstand and their gig with Elton John and had gained a small (but loyal) American audience, that audience was too small to sustain them stateside. And so Family would call it a day – but not before recording a final album and supporting it with a farewell tour.
The final lineup of Family, 1973. From left:
Rob Townsend, Tony Ashton, Jim Cregan, Charlie Whitney, Roger Chapman
That album, It’s Only a Movie, is Family’s loosest and most relaxed work. With nothing more to prove, Chapman, Whitney, and Rob Townsend decided it was time to have fun with the music and stop being so damn serious. New members Jim Cregan and Tony Ashton were certainly game as well. This time Family went back to the roots of rock and roll, finding their inspiration in the carefree sounds of ragtime, Dixieland, and country, with a little New Orleans soul thrown in. It was an affectionate exploration of the various forms of American popular music that had always intrigued and inspired them. At times this record sounds like a mediocre Band album, and other times it recalls Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection LP (which, to be honest, is the same thing as a mediocre Band album). But because this is a Family LP, It’s Only a Movie also throws in a couple of curves as well to keep the music interesting.
When I first heard It’s Only a Movie, the group member who stood out the most to me, surprisingly, was keyboardist Tony Ashton. Ashton, like Cregan, had been recruited to help Family honor concert commitments, and although he probably knew that his gig with Family would be a one-album deal, he plays on this album with more effort and panache than he really has to. Ashton, who sadly died of cancer in the spring of 2001 at the age of 55, was a rowdy pianist who could play great boogie riffs and handled ragtime, honky tonk, and Old West saloon styles with skill and flair. I maintain that drummer Rob Townsend was the group’s only virtuoso, but Ashton gave Townsend a pretty good run for the money on this record!
Alas, the same can’t be said for bassist Jim Cregan. Cregan has primarily been a rhythm guitarist for much of his career – he was Rod Stewart’s rhythm guitarist (and occasional songwriting collaborator) from 1977 to 1995, by the way – so although he could easily adapt to the bass because it is a rhythmic instrument, his bass playing is somewhat pedestrian. There are no bass lines on It’s Only a Movie that stand out the way bass lines on previous Family albums do. To be fair, though, Cregan did get the job done by giving the songs on It’s Only a Movie consistent, if unspectacular, pacing.
For all its charms, though, It’s Only a Movie has one bad song, so I’ll dispense with that right away. “Boom Bang,” the first of two singles on the album, is a lyrically vulgar rocker dealing with various ways male members of different species get sexually aroused. Chapman delivers a fiery vocal here (elsewhere on the album, he’s considerably restrained), the band offers up a solid arrangement, and Linda Lewis provides some incredible backup vocal pyrotechnics, but it . . . just . . . doesn’t . . . work. It’s a good performance that can’t save a bad song. Call it dysfunctional Family.
The rest of It’s Only a Movie, though, is an enjoyable hoot. Many of the songs are about ambition and frustration, and Family arrange them quite nicely with a basic roadhouse band sound delicately embellished by horns and strings. The LP starts off with the title song, a tale of an old-time movie director making a Western and being unable to develop the story properly. Ashton’s smoky saloon piano and various sound effects – gunshots, horses – provide a nice, jokey Old West atmosphere. Whitney’s heavy electric riff carries a good deal of “It’s Only a Movie,” and the humorous spoken-word narration that interrupts the lyrics shows just how befuddled everyone involved with this imaginary Western is.
The album’s two best songs are about the desire for something better in life and to put down some kind of roots, even if it’s not necessarily possible. “Buffet Tea for Two,” finds Chapman’s narrator walking out on a worn-out relationship with a woman and starting over; some strident guitar, moderate orchestration, and Ashton’s dexterous ivory tickling give the song a laid-back LA rock feel. “Boots ‘n’ Roots,” presumably about a traveling hobo in the American hinterlands, starts with Ashton’s piano before abruptly starting over with a new arrangement, which features some tart guitar playing with each note bristling against one another; it melds well with Chapman’s deadpan vocal. (The horns at the beginning that sample “Wait ‘Til the Sun Shines, Nellie” are a nice touch!)
Much of the remainder of It’s Only a Movie is good, inconsequential fun that shows Family lightening up more than they’d ever done before, except maybe on a couple of their earlier singles. “Banger,” a safe-sounding instrumental with a risque title, suggests a late-night jam session in some Bourbon Street club. “Sweet Desiree,” the second single on the album, is slow Dixieland with some boisterous harmonies and callback vocals, with a bit of hot funk thrown in at the end, and the similar “Suspicion” is an effervescent tune that sounds like what Loggins and Messina might have come up with if they hadn’t been so mellow. The closing tune, the appropriately titled “Check Out,” is a sharp rocker about an escaped convict on the lam; a crunchy guitar riff powers the song, with Ashton’s bright organ and Linda Lewis’s soaring backup vocal helping it glide along. Then it builds up in intensity toward the end, and just when you think it’s coming to a grand finish, it fades out instead. Typical Family.
It’s Only a Movie was a respectable way to bow out, and Family’s farewell tour in the fall of 1973, which featured some exciting shows, topped off their career with panache. The very last concert was held in – where else? – Leicester on October 13, and those who saw it clearly remember Family going out with a bang (though the band members themselves probably don’t remember it so clearly). (by Steven Maginnis)
Tony Ashton (keyboards, background vocals)
Roger Chapman (vocals)
Jim Cregan (bass)
Rob Townsend (drums, percussion)
John “Charlie” Whitney (guitar, banjo)
Peter Hope-Evans (harmonica)
01. It’s Only A Movie (Chapman/Whitney) 5.07
02. Leroy (Chapman/Whitney) 5.40
03. Buffet Tea For Two (Chapman/Whitney) 5.20
04. Boom Bang (Chapman/Whitney) 3.02
05. Boots ‘n’ Roots (Chapman/Whitney) 5.01
06. Banger (instrumental) (Chapman/Whitney) 3.05
07. Sweet Desiree (Chapman/Whitney) 3.40
08. Suspicion (Chapman/Whitney) 3.22
09. Check Out (Chapman/Whitney/Cregan) 4.32
10. Hometown (Chapman/Whitney) 3.10
11. Holding The Compass (live) (Chapman/Whitney) 2.22
12. The Weaver’s Answer (live) (Chapman/Whitney) 4.49
13. Dim (live) (Chapman/Whitney) 1.21
14. Procession / No Mule’s Fool (live) (Chapman/Whitney) 4.51